Typically an artist receives a mid-career retrospective after that artist has created, explored and tested his artistic ‘language,’ after his work has demonstrated staying power, after he has moved past hot-new-thing and into established-figure territory.
As I noted last week, the Mark Bradford survey at the Wexner Center for the Arts comes just ten years into Bradford’s career, before all of that has had a chance to happen. Curator Christopher Bedford believes he has caught a rising star and is asking us to join him as Bradford ascends.
There are lots of good reasons to pay attention to what Bradford is doing. I’m most interested in the way Bradford addresses issues around race and sexual orientation and identity. Also, the ways in which Bradford is re-imagining American landscape painting are often — but not always — exciting. And Bradford has skill at exploring these themes while allowing himself to dip into the 20th-century art historical canon. But the Wexner show reveals that it’s too soon for all the questions about Bradford’s explorations in these areas to be answered.
Bradford is a gay, black man and his most confident, assertive work mines his own personal history. Last week I wrote about Crow (2003), Bradford’s first in-depth examination of his own identity as expressed in an engagement with Robert Rauschenberg’s famed combine Canyon. The result is a mix of autobiography and a commentary on how American life has changed in the last 50 years. Bradford continued his examination of gay life in America in this year’s Paris is Burning, a collaged broadside that challenges the viewer with an expletive, a provocative slur and a misspelling.
Paris is Burning is among Bradford’s best pieces, works in which he merges his trademark urban-derived materials (such as advertising posters, billboard paper and the like) with social consciousness or assertive commentary on contemporary American life. The best example of Bradford engaging the now is Help Us (2008), the rooftop installation Bradford made about the federal government’s response to — and President Bush’s fly-over of — the post-Hurricane Katrina disaster. Help Us is Bradford’s most piercing work, but it is neither included in nor referenced in the Wexner show. I’m not sure how Bedford could have included it while maintaining the spirit of the work — would a photograph and wall-text have done that? — but it is one of the most important artworks Bradford has made and I miss it.
In between 2003’s Crow and 2010’s Paris is Burning, works that make declarative statements, Bradford was often content to raise open-ended questions… and that’s it. He paints, you decide. Works such as Bread and Circuses (2007, left) seem to open conversations rather than conclude them: Is that a Medusan swirl, an urban road network, an abstracted Trojan horse, a psychogeographic system, something else or all of the above? Is the silver background a reference to the way cinema projects false realities onto Bradford’s hometown of Los Angeles, a Warhol reference or both? Is the city alive and vibrant or is it vacuous? Those are all interesting questions and Bradford’s allusions to umpteen things at once are engage — and non-committal. The art world loves its valid explorations of theme, its spirit of dialogue, its invitations to discourse, and much of Bradford’s work wallows in that kind of Jaume Plensa-esque, can-we-all-get-along open-endedness. Bradford’s best art, like Crow, Paris is Burning and Help Us, takes stands. Time will tell if he thinks so too, if he tries to say more and ask less.
But making pointedly socially engaging work is hardly Bradford’s only interest. His most ambitious project is the re-imagining of American landscape painting, which has traditionally focused on open spaces, pastorals, the West and the like. Bradford’s landscapes are not exactly painted: They are urban and pointedly aerial. (Bradford’s paintings aren’t ‘urban’ in the way we refer to radio programming targeted at blacks as ‘urban radio,’ they’re urban because they’re dense, like cities.)
By my count, about a dozen of the 52 paintings in the Wexner present Bradford updating landscape-rooted abstraction. They examine the American metropolis by using some of the materials that distinguish it from suburbia, including the advertising posters that cover the temporary walls around empty lots or urban building projects, billboards and the like. The paintings are readily identifiable as Bradfords in the same that’s-the-style-of way a an Apple ad on TV is readily identifiable as an Apple ad. Sometimes Bradford’s landscapes work more like a checklist than as memorable stand-alone images. If a work has the collaged elements I referenced above, plus some kind of binder, bright, catchy colors and is finished but not ‘polished,’ that’s a Bradford.
Bradford’s been making these landscape paintings for only six or seven years. They’re big and seductive. But I’m still not sure if individual works reward sustained viewing. I want to see how Bradford’s interest in urban landscapes evolves and grows. Are his aerially-derived compositions played out, a short fuse, or is there more he can do there? Are they all too similar? Reading the exhibition’s catalogue essay and seeing how closely essayists Bradford, Richard Schiff, Rob Storr and even (to a lesser extent) Katy Siegel examine them is to realize that a race to canonize them is underway. When I read so many smart people saying similar things about a body of work, I wonder anew how much breadth or depth it has.
If there’s one time-tested way for an artist to seduce the critical and curatorial class, it’s by loading his work with art historical references. (Uh, yeah.) Bradford is a master-synthesizer. For example: In Right There (2003, at top), Bradford manages to gracefully fuse Georgia O’Keeffe’s Manhattan (1932), with Charles Sheeler’s Americana (1931), flipping their dominant compositional shapes (a technique artists have used for 500 years) to create a mix of the island of Manhattan and a black-power-saluting fist.
And that’s just the beginning. Bradford mines Clyfford Still’s from-above viewpoint in his landscape abstractions, Ed Ruscha text paintings (in Juice, 2003 or James Brown is Dead, 2007), Jasper Johns‘ flags (Value 87), Warhol’s silver screens and death-and-disaster paintings (Bread and Circuses and Disappear Like a Dope Fiend, respectively), Rauschenberg’s use of materials and centuries of trompe l’oeil tradition (Bradford’s Luma and related works ask the same questions about newspapers that Warhol asked about painting).
Bradford doesn’t just hit the boldface names, but also less-known artists such as Italian painter-collageists Mimmo Rotella and Alberto Burri. Bradford seems particularly likely to have learned a lot from Lee Mullican, whose Space (above, left) has long been a mainstay of LACMA’s contemporary art installations. I think Space is likely a Rosetta Stone for Bradford’s landscape abstraction, a painting from which Bradford learned, well, space, composition and energy. The debt is particularly apparent in Bradford’s Method Man (2004, above right) and Los Moscos (2004).
There’s no doubt that Bradford’s an artist worthy of attention and the Wexner’s Bradford survey makes that clear. But it also makes clear that there are still plenty of questions about his work, questions that I’m looking forward to seeing Bradford address over the next decade or two. As I noted in this post, Bradford seems to have recently taken a more declarative direction with his work. Maybe he’ll continue to grow — and maybe not. The race to canonize or historicize is run on a slippery path.